I'm killing a few minutes between a screening and a luncheon interview by perusing the magazine shelves at Tower Records when the cover of Maxim doesn't so much catch my eye as pull it out of its socket, as in an old Krazy Kat cartoon. There, in the briefest of bikini bottoms, is my lunch partner, making me feel at once like an old lech and a young buck. This, I think, may be the two extremes of the cover girl's fan base.
"Yeah, well, I have my top on, I don't have my arms crossed across my chest," says an anything-but-apologetic Jessica Alba, 22, star of the hip-hop dance musical Honey, which opens tomorrow. She appears not the least embarrassed that I have seen her in at least half her underwear.
"The photographers try to push you as far as you will go, but I'm not intimidated. It's part of the job. You set parameters, and you do what makes you comfortable. I'm comfortable looking sexy. I don't push it with poses, although I like the ironic part of it. That's what makes it fun."
It is at that moment that Alba, digging into her salad, mentions Brigitte Bardot and Et Dieu ... crea la femme, the French title of a movie a few million excited baby boom boys knew as And God Created Woman.
"I love that movie so much," says Alba. "She's 18, she's unbelievably sexy and gorgeous, she's so aware of the effect she has on men. She's so, so cool. She kills."
Alba uses that word -- kills -- a lot, whether she's talking about her favorite music ("Have you heard Joss Stone? She's just 16, and that voice ... she kills.") or her favorite actors ("I want to see anything Cate Blanchett does ... she kills.")
She also uses it in referring to the choreographer she worked with to learn the steps she performs in Honey. In the film, she plays a dance teacher from Harlem whose dream of becoming a choreographer for hip-hop videos comes true.
"She tried to kill me," says Alba. "She was just doing her job, but if she would have had her way, I would have been rehearsing the moves 20 hours a day. Finally, I had to say 'Look, I'm beat, I'm sore, and I have to be on the set in a few hours and know my lines. Give me a break.'"
But Alba can probably handle herself. After all, she did take on all comers as the genetically enhanced fighting machine in Fox TV's short-lived but acclaimed sci-fi series Dark Angel, whose first season has probably been seen by more people on DVD than tuned in for free three years ago.
By that time Alba, who was born in Pomona, Calif., but raised in Biloxi, Miss., where her father served in the Air Force to support her and her mother, had been acting professionally for seven years.
She was one of hundreds of young women James Cameron auditioned for the dark and stylish Dark Angel, his post-Titanic TV project, and was happily surprised when she won the part of Max, a bike messenger in a post-apocalyptic Seattle on the run from a government that enhanced her with super-strength and intelligence for her role in a top-secret assault squad.
"The first season kills," says Alba. "The second season, Fox wanted to juice the ratings, so they fired the head writer and made it more fantastic, with monsters and all that other stuff. Even people who live and breathe sci-fi don't want to see that. It's all about human emotion in the end."
In the wake of Dark Angel, Alba says, she was offered "every female butt-kicking role out there. I just wasn't interested."
What did interest her was doing a musical that could turn kids on to dancing the way Flashdance and Dirty Dancing had for her. But when Universal first sent her the script for Honey, she wasn't impressed.
"It was so cliched, the dialogue was like all Ebonics. They had my character riding a motorcycle and beating people up. I was like, 'Uh, I don't think so.'"
Alba was persuaded to hang in, and changes were made that she said "gave it the heart of those movies I loved so much." Alba also thought Mekhi Phifer, who appeared in 8 Mile and is currently a cast member on ER, would be perfect for the role of the neighborhood barber whom Honey vastly prefers to the Cristal-ordering video producer who gives her her big break.
"They said, 'Mekhi will never do it; he's past that now,' and I argued that he had never played a regular guy role like this one, and if they could just get him in, I could talk him into reading it. He did and said he liked it, and I was like" -- deep breath -- "OK, now I've got to make sure we do it right."
For Alba, that meant using a dance double as little as possible; though she diplomatically avoids naming names, she says other recent dance-themed movies make her crazy.
"It's so obviously not the star doing the dancing. I hate it when they edit in the footwork, because it's so obvious."
Thus, the drill instructor teacher who drove her crazy too -- "but it was worth it," Alba says.
Next, she says, is a loose remake of author Peter Benchley's The Deep, titled Into the Blue, in which she will get to use her scuba skills as a member of a diving group whose discovery of a sunken airplane overloaded with contraband makes them the target of a drug lord.
Paul Thomas Walker will play the part Nick Nolte took in the original film, and John Stockwell, who got his feet wet in Blue Crush, will direct.
Alba says that she had few qualms about doing a remake because "about all anybody ever remembers about the original was Jacqueline Bisset in a wet T-shirt."
"Don't worry, I've got that in my contract. Wet suit only. No clingy tee."
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